X-Men: Apocalypse is the sixth X-Men movie (ninth in the franchise, if you include spinoffs). It is the third effective reboot of the franchise in a row, each aiming to apologize for 2006’s disastrous X-Men: The Last Stand, which stopped the franchise in its tracks for half a decade. X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2011 and 2014, respectively) were fun, imperfect movies that nonetheless made it a viable franchise again.
Well, don’t get excited: X-Men: Apocalypse is an apocalyptic dud, a movie that burns away the potential gained from its prequels and makes question whether watching another X-Men movie would even be worth your time. Wow.
Apocalypse is set in the 1980s, 10 years after Days of Future Past and 20 years after First Class, (although absolutely none of the characters from those movies act like they’ve aged 20 years). Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), the first mutant, was betrayed by his cult in ancient Egypt and buried under a pyramid. Good thing he’s immortal! When Apocalypse is released into the modern day, it is up to the X-Men — Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) — to recruit new mutants to their cause and defeat their greatest threat yet. Meanwhile, Apocalypse recruits his own four Horsemen (of the Apocalypse, get it?): Psylocke (Oliva Munn, in a visually impressive but uncomfortable-looking costume), Angel (Ben Hardy), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and, surprise surprise, Magneto (Michael Fassbender).
X-Men: Apocalypse never feels fully baked; it’s a workmanlike job for a story that requires bombast and intensity. This problem is clearest with Apocalypse himself, whose presence and plan involve Roland Emmerich-level destruction. He is all bombast, a monstrous mutant with a god complex whose goal is to rule the world. But for whatever reason, director Bryan Singer (helming his fourth X-Men film) and company have written Apocalypse as a manipulative Satan. To Isaac’s credit, he plays the role well, but there is a massive dissonance between the movie and its actual villain. Satan-as-manipulator requires a much more downbeat, coherent film.
In an X-Men movie, the powers of a hero or villain define them as characters; it is fitting that Apocalypse’s abilities are ill-defined, as numerous as they are situational. We’re told he is a body-shifter, a force that can move from body to body; if he is in a mutant’s body, he will steal their powers when he moves on. Therefore, he has numerous powers, like the ability to enhance other mutants’ powers and shoot fire, I guess. Yet Apocalypse spends the entire movie standing around stiffly, talking about what he’s going to do rather than actually putting plans in place to do it. All power, no motion. The film as a whole is just as inert; even the final action sequence involves Apocalypse standing in a single place, yelling platitudes at his foes. Satan is seductive. Apocalypse is just stupid.
It isn’t all Isaac’s fault; his makeup is surely to blame for his almost complete immobility. Special effects are the cornerstone of superhero cinema, letting these characters do what they do. Earlier iterations of the X-Men franchise came before CGI was at its best; they had to invent clever workarounds for the more visually interesting powers. Let’s go back to that. Most of the special-effects work in X-Men Apocalypse looks either half-finished (almost anything in motion) or ill-conceived (Psylocke’s psychic sword). Most disappointingly, the climax rests on world-scale destruction created with so little attention to detail that it looks less impressive than your average disaster schlock. Additionally, every single set in the movie lacks immersion. These characters look like they’re on sets. The special-effects work is so lousy that it takes you out of the story, which is appropriate, because this isn’t even a story the movie seems interested in telling.
Just as Apocalypse starts to finally starts to work toward a real goal, the movie shifts tracks to throw in a 20-minute cameo. Really. New recruits Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) set out to rescue their friends, who are captured at random by Col. William Stryker (Josh Helman), the villain from X2: X-Men United. They receive surprise help from a feral Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Structurally, the story requires a test of the new characters’ mettle as X-Men before the big blow-out, but it’s a subplot that flat-out doesn’t fit in the movie, one that exists solely to callback to the X2, the best X-Men movie.
And maybe that’s the worst thing about X-Men: Apocalypse: You’ve seen it all before. It is not just boring due to lack of bravery in embracing its premise; it is boring because every major dramatic beat in the movie is drawn from one of Singer’s three better X-Men movies. It would be hard to detail without spoilers, but, what the hell: When Jean Grey is forced to “go Phoenix” to save her friends, when Quicksilver has a slow-motion sequence set to a timely tune, when Wolverine massacres Stryker’s military goons, when the movie ends with a speech directly lifted from one of the best moments of X2, it becomes clear a pattern is at work. And it is tiresome. Callbacks to push a story forward and indicate change and growth are one thing; callbacks as a way of avoiding real storytelling are another.
One of the most amazing qualities of the X-Men films — the best trend they started — was large, ensemble casts of big stars playing superhero characters with straight-faced respect for the material. While the “First Class” ensemble persists, it feels like McAvoy, Lawrence and Fassbender are phoning this one in. Maybe it’s the script; it’s no slight against their talents, but something is amiss. To their credit, Sheridan, Shipp, Turner and Smit-McPhee are all great versions of their respective characters, but “Apocalypse” doesn’t use them and does nothing to imply a movie featuring them as the central figures will be worth watching.
In the end, this is effectively the third reboot in a trilogy of soft reboots. This is the movie that needed to leave the past behind and embrace what the future of the X-Men film franchise could be. But it’s not a victory lap; it’s much more a final one. Hugely disappointing, lacking any passion, ambition or sense of fun, Apocalypse is not worth your time. Just watch Deadpool again.